Widening Arab-Israeli Normalization in the Middle East

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On Sunday an Israeli delegation arrived in Manama, a sign of newly normalised relations between Israel and Bahrain. And on Monday, in what was clearly a week of photo-ops, the delegation found its way to Abu Dhabi.

Not that these were the first signals of the new status quo following the signing of the agreements to normalise relations at the White House on 15 September. Maritime routes have already been established between Israel and the UAE, and economic and scientific cooperation is being discussed at the highest levels. Research centres in the UAE, Israel and the US have agreed to work on joint projects, and counter-terrorism measures are being discussed on the bilateral and trilateral levels.

While officials in Abu Dhabi and Manama have been stressing cooperation with Israel will not include security or intelligence matters, Israeli media and Western diplomats in the region suggest otherwise.

“It’s no secret that a key objective of the cooperation of these countries with Israel is to create a regional alliance against Iran. And cooperation against Iran requires intelligence and security coordination,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat.

In one of the earliest reactions to US President Donald Trump’s August announcement of the agreement between Israel and the UAE, Iranian officials said Tehran’s “approach” towards its Arab neighbours “will fundamentally change, and the armed forces of the Islamic Republic will look at [any country signing an agreement] with different calculations”. Tehran also vowed to hold the UAE responsible for anything that happens in the Gulf that poses “the slightest threat to Iran’s national security”.

Concern about the ramifications of an Israeli presence in the two Arab Gulf states was not restricted to Iran. Diplomatic sources say that others in the region, including the Palestinian Authority and Islamist resistance movements, are worried. According to a Hamas source speaking from Gaza, “with the Israeli presence being solidified in these countries our people there increasingly fear being targeted.”

In January 2010, a Mossad agent is alleged to have killed Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a leading Hamas member, in a Dubai hotel.

“This happened when relations were not public. Now what should we expect,” asked the Hamas source.

The close association between Hamas and Doha prompted Qatar’s Gulf adversaries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE — to distance themselves from the Islamic resistance movements Hamas and Jihad. The close association between the UAE and former Fatah figure Mohamed Dahlan exacerbated the suspicions of the resistance movements, and the fact the UAE openly supports Trump’s plan for the settlement of the Palestinian cause, which Palestinians overwhelmingly reject, has added to the tensions between the UAE and all Palestinian factions.

The Hamas source said it would be mistaken to compare Israel’s relations with the UAE and Bahrain to its relations with Egypt and Jordan following the respective peace treaties of 1979 and 1994. Egypt and Jordan had their territories occupied by Israel and opted for peace agreements to end a state of war and restore their land, which is the case with neither the UAE nor Bahrain. And the volume of cooperation between Egypt and Jordan with Israel, “even after all these years, is nothing to what we are seeing between the Emirates and Israel”.

Israeli officials and diplomats frequently complained that relations with Egypt and Jordan never moved towards normality, and used the term “cold peace” to qualify Israel’s relations with Egypt in particular. While they could attribute the Jordanians’ reluctance to engage with Israel to the number of Jordanians with Palestinian kin, they never managed to decipher what they qualified as Egyptians’ determined refusal to fully normalise ties.

Only this week, as the UAE and Bahrain were holding out the prospect of wide-ranging cooperation with Israel, Egyptian artists, critics and intellectuals signed a petition opposing El Gouna Film Festival’s plans to honour Gerard Depardieu because of the French actor’s close association with Israel. It looked like a repeat of 2018, when Cairo International Film Festival had to bow to public opinion and step back from its plans to honour leading French filmmaker Claude Lelouch.

Regional diplomatic sources say Israel is far from happy with what it views as Cairo’s unenthusiastic official reaction to the recent normalisation agreements. The measured Egyptian reaction, they say, is partly due to Cairo’s concern over possible public reaction, and partly because Cairo worries its traditional role as a mediator between Israel, the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbours is being undermined.

On handing her accreditation to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi late in September Israel’s new Ambassador to Egypt Amira Oron stressed the importance of Egypt to Israel’s relations in the region. Oron said that while Israel will continue to pursue relations with more Arab countries it will always cherish its first peace deal with Egypt.

Informed government sources say that “all is well” in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Security cooperation is stable and political consultations happen on a regular basis and at a high level. They insist Cairo is not at all jealous of Arab countries consolidating their ties with Israel, and add that what Egypt wants is to ensure that the Palestinian cause is addressed in tandem with any Israeli-Arab thaw.

“We have been advising the Palestinians to consider Washington’s ideas for a settlement as a base on which to work. We tell them they need to be realistic, but they remain adamant,” said one official. Egypt, he continued, is concerned that if the “Palestinians — rather than the Palestinian leadership” — feel the door to a fair political deal is shut they will give up on negotiations, and that will result in the door being locked.

In coordination with Jordan, France and Germany, Egypt has launched a diplomatic mechanism that aims to keep a negotiated Palestinian-Israel settlement on the table. In doing so, Cairo hopes not only to provide a counter-balance for the euphoria that surrounds normalisation in some quarters, but help prevent the Palestinians slipping into the orbit of Turkey and Iran.

While Egyptian officials say Tehran clearly gave the green light to Hizbullah in Lebanon to enter maritime demarcation talks with Israel, it remains unwilling to give up on using Hamas to threaten Israel with possible attacks. This, they say, is a concern that cannot be overlooked, despite the Qatari mediation between Hamas and Israel for a longer-term truce than the one Egypt had maintained mostly intact for five years.

They also express concern over growing coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Ankara. Turkey recently hosted a Hamas-Fatah meeting to promote inter-Palestinian negotiations to end the 15-year split between the two leading Palestinian factions.

The path of normalisation will widen, sooner or later. Sudan is seriously considering an American offer to begin talks with Israel before the US elections in exchange for its removal from Washington’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism. And while a Sudanese agreement might not come before 3 November, if Trump wins a second term, it will soon follow, as will an agreement between Israel and Oman.

Egyptian officials say that while this is “all positive”, it should be part of a wider scheme to restart Palestinian-Israeli talks on a political settlement.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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